For 23 years, the Socialist Scholars Conference was a big tent under which leftist activists and academics took shelter in an increasingly conservative America. Last June, however, seven of the group's 16 board members resigned, "in protest of the lack of democratic and participatory governance procedures."
As a result of the split, the group's annual conference has been canceled, at least for this year. Meanwhile, the seven who quit the board quickly formed a new organization, the 2005 Left Forum, which has scheduled its debut conference for this weekend at the CUNY Graduate Center in Midtown Manhattan.
The new group grew in large part out of a desire by dissidents to broaden the socialist conference's scope to include more activists. Though it preceded the November presidential election, observers said the split also reflects internal tension simmering within the broadly defined but fractured "left," which has not been able to respond en masse to the rightward shift in American politics in recent years. Specifically, the resignations were a referendum, those who handed them in said, on the Socialist Scholars Conference's ability to reflect the ideals of inclusion and consensus building that they had sought to foster in the world at large.
"We did not want to be part of an organization where we felt people were violating their own principles," a board member who resigned, Stanley Aronowitz, said. Mr. Aronowitz, who is a sociology professor at CUNY, also is a founder of the new forum.
"These disputes are not uncommon," a founder of the conference who remains on its board, Bogdan Denitch, said. "The amazing thing is that we ran it for 23 years without breaking up. People who passionately believe in things tend to fight. Look at the Democrats and Republicans." Mr. Denitch is an emeritus professor of sociology at CUNY.
The resignations came after the board, led by Mr. Denitch, voted 8-7 last May to fire the group's staff director, Eric Canepa. Mr. Denitch said Mr. Canepa had overstepped his bounds by making decisions over whom to invite to the annual spring conference, which had been held at the Cooper Union.
Under Mr. Canepa, the group too closely resembled nongovernmental organizations "and the goody-goody organizations where the staff runs the thing and the leaders are just figureheads," Mr. Denitch said. Furthermore, Mr. Denitch disagreed with Mr. Canepa's choice of guest speakers: mainly "academics from Europe and former communists who are perfectly nice people but don't have much to say," Mr. Denitch said.
American socialists, in Mr. Denitch's view, can learn something from President da Silva of Brazil, who "was elected by the largest electorate in Latin America," but not from President Castro of Cuba, who "has never faced an election."
Mr. Aronowitz, who was the 2002 Green Party gubernatorial nominee in New York, said the decision to resign had less to do with the firing of Mr. Canepa than with how it was done. The seven board members, in an e-mail addressed to the "Socialist Scholars Conference community" explaining their resignation, wrote: "We are leaving because we feel that the campaign to accomplish this was riddled with behavior we regard as politically unethical, including grossly inaccurate charges that were repeated even in the face of evidence of their inaccuracy, tirades that were abusive to the point of derangement, and the recurrent implication that those of us who objected to these procedures, being newcomers, were not the 'real' board."
Critics of Mr. Denitch said the board was intent on firing Mr. Canepa and began accusing him of misspending money, in particular a $10,000 grant. Warned that a vote to remove him would precipitate resignations, the board went ahead with it anyway, according to one of the board members who resigned, Frances Fox Piven.
At the heart of the dispute is a fundamental difference in organizational philosophy, some insiders said. The firing of Mr. Canepa was akin to instituting a top-down management approach like that of a corporation, those who resigned said.
"You can't be authoritarian and want a society that is democratic or non-authoritarian," Mr. Aronowitz said. "My politics is that if you are a member of the organization, it has to be prefigurative of the society you want to make. It was not in this case."
Mr. Denitch - who, like Mr. Aronowitz, is a veteran of the Democratic Socialists of America - said the minority contingent on the board had simply been outvoted and left in protest.
Mr. Canepa, who is helping to organize this weekend's Left Forum, downplayed the split, saying it was very easy to misinterpret as some kind of "political clash" but was "not a left-right split at all." He declined to speak about the board's decision not to renew his contract or about the resignations.
In Internet discussions of the conference, some postings trace the split back to the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, when Mr. Denitch, who is originally from the former Yugoslavia and pressed for American intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s, supported the American-led war in Afghanistan. Those who eventually resigned had opposed it. When the Iraq war came in 2003, fierce opposition was seen as a point, conference members said, upon which everyone on the board could finally agree.
Those organizing the Left Forum said that they plan to broaden debate this year by including more youth and activist groups and that special attention will be focused on core issues of the left, such as saving Social Security, protecting women's right to abortion, and taking stock of the anti-war movement.
"They want sessions as much as possible in which people disagree and hold conflicting positions," a professor emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Jesse Lemisch, said.
Ms. Piven said she believed the Left Forum will include some of the old organizations but will also seek to bring into the fold some of the new organizations on the left, including more activists and youth groups, in an effort to broaden the left's reach.
"Their conference was academic - after all it was called the Socialist Scholars Conference," Ms. Piven, a sociology professor at CUNY, said. "We will include academics but we will also include people from the movements."
Mr. Denitch contested the view that the Socialist Scholars Conference did not include younger voices or those of activists. Given the intensely felt political beliefs of those involved, he characterized the parting as an almost inevitable outcome.
"It's not unfair to say that people on the left tend to be more persnickety," he said. "Conservative people on the right tend to respect authority. People on the left are taught to question authority."
"These debates are what's good about leftist conferences," a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Richard Wolff, said.
"If it were the intent of one side to exclude the other it wouldn't work," Mr. Wolff, who has helped plan this weekend's conference, continued. "The majority are acutely aware that if they want to have conferences with people who only agree with them, the small left will become the invisible left."